‘Really cool’ — Paging at the Capitol

Published 8:03 pm Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Most students don’t consider getting up early, dressing in business attire, and running back and forth between buildings a fun way to spend a day. Still, thousands each year apply to be pages in their state and national government. Last week, Daughter No. 2 filled such a position. While she got a front-row seat to Mississippi’s inner workings, I kept I-55 hot as transportation secretary.

Page programs like ours offer students a unique opportunity to learn how government works. They get to meet the state’s movers and shakers, walk the hallowed halls of the Capitol complex and be around peers who think it’s cool to talk politics. Most of all, though, they get to deliver correspondence. Lots of it.

“We took bills between the Capitol and the governor’s office constantly,” Daughter No. 2 told me, pointing to blisters on her business-attired feet. Turns out he doesn’t hand sign them all, though. She and her two comrades (a preacher’s kid from Crystal Springs and a birthday girl from Brandon) learned to operate a machine that replicates Gov. Bryant’s signature.

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“It holds a pen, and you press a foot pedal and his signature just moves across the page. It’s really cool.”

I heard “really cool” a lot, like when she described the view from the 19th floor of the Walter Sillers Building and their group’s ride in the Capitol’s private elevator. She also enjoyed a quiet moment Monday morning in the house chamber before the legislators arrived. As sunlight filtered through stained glass, she watched a custodian use a long scoping pole to change a light bulb in the soaring ceiling.

“Really cool.”

The paging thing got its start in 1829 when U.S. Sen. Daniel Webster appointed a 9-year-old as his special helper. Throughout the 19th century, the Senate used pages mainly as messengers. Often, they were local orphans or children of widowed mothers, and their Senate income helped the family.

These days, state programs attract students like many of those my daughter met — high schoolers on the fast track to careers in law and public policy. For her, though, the point was a little less focused. Maybe just become a better-informed citizen? 

Her dad and I have pushed that for a while now, forking over funds for good civics courses and an excellent leadership program called TeenPact. But her paging experience put Mississippi politics into a new, tangible context. It’s seeing Jay Hughes up close. It’s walking through the Supreme Court library. It’s watching a legislator prop his foot on a chair while questioning the person in the well. It’s taking her picture with our senator, Albert Butler. It’s watching buttons light up the big board “yes” or “no” during a house vote. It’s chatting it up with Sec. of State Delbert Hosemann in a line at the downtown Chick-fil-A.  And then there was the press conference, the one for that big human trafficking bill that passed last week.

“Eighty pages,” she sighed, referring to that bill’s copying efforts.    

Pages, in one sense, serve a role that goes way beyond correspondence delivery. They are living visuals. While representatives make their points and senators cast their votes, the pages sitting ringside are Exhibit A. Legislators can’t ignore their youthful faces, the ones their decisions will impact long after terms end. They are reminded of a real generation that is watching them, of one that will reap what they sow. 

Friday, the governor took photos with his trio of pages — the last of his tenure. Daughter No. 2 likes hers, as well as the lapel pin, stainless steel tumbler and engraved notebook she brought home. I like something else she gained — an inside view of government.

I think that’s really cool. 

Contact Kim Henderson at kimhenderson319@gmail.com or follow her on twitter at @kimhenderson319.